Reflections from the 2018 UN General Assembly

October 31, 2018

By Dan Viederman, Managing Director

During the 2018 UN General Assembly in New York, I had the opportunity to participate in a panel with the UK International Development Secretary at the UN itself, and facilitate another panel discussion at the 2018 Concordia Annual Summit, which brought together representatives from Walmart and the International Justice Mission (IJM). Both convenings yielded thoughtful conversations—among leaders from the private and public sectors—about the problems of labor abuses in supply chains. The following are a few highlights from these important discussions.

Recognizing the Reality
During our panel at the UN, the UK International Development Secretary, Penny Mourdant, called the continued prevalence of forced labor in supply chains “shocking” and decried that the practice has become “normalized.” She said, When so little value reaches the people working at the end of our supply chains, it is not surprising that slavery is so widespread. It is not good enough for businesses to turn a blind eye or say they did not know. We need every CEO in every company to recognize this reality and place at the heart of their business plans this issue.”

Government Support
The UK Government is putting its money behind those words. Secretary Mourdant said that her government “must also ensure our own house is in order. That is why I can announce that the UK will take action to eliminate slavery from our own public procurement practices, alongside a review of our Modern Slavery Act, to ensure that our legislation is as strong and effective as it can be. And the message here is clear: Doing business with the UK requires you to act responsibly.” For those of us who watched businesses take notice when President Obama signed the 2012 Executive Order to strengthen protections against trafficking in persons in federal contracts, this UK commitment on public procurement holds particular promise.

Collaborating for Progress
At the Concordia Summit, Walmart highlighted the challenges and opportunities presented by collaboration to address forced labor in supply chains. Our panel discussed collaboration between the giant retailer and the global NGO, IJM. Walmart Senior Vice President for Responsible Sourcing, Jan Saumweber, explained her organization’s openness to collaboration with the reflection that “no one organization, no matter how big or influential, can solve the biggest issues of our time.” Walmart is collaborating in Thailand with other companies and NGOs in the Sustainable Seafood Task Force, whose work is supported by IJM’s data gathering and research, as well as Humanity United and the Freedom Fund’s grant-making.

Investing in Solutions
The Working Capital Fund sees forced labor as a particularly egregious manifestation of labor exploitation that emerges from supply chains which are opaque and complex. Addressing risks of modern slavery in supply chains means that other exploitation will be addressed as well. We have invested in tools that build transparency and accountability that can reduce the vulnerability of workers. These include Provenance, leveraging block chain technology to enable product traceability; Sundar, which matches responsible suppliers with buyers; and Ulula and QuizRR, which can help integrate workers into the management of supplier facilities.

Ultimately, whether powerful institutions like governments and multinational companies achieve their commitments is a function of political will, the availability of the right tools, and their openness to stakeholders who can both help and hold them accountable.